BUELLTON -- He may not self-identify as a philosopher, being a proud gearhead and gas-station grease monkey at heart, but Mark Mendenhall was nothing if not profound when he looked around and took stock of all he surveyed.
“You can have 4,000 signs,” he said, a quick head nod left and right to walls covered floor-to-ceiling with what collectors call petroliana, “but if you don’t got a place to display ’em, you just gotta garage full of junk.”
Junk? At the Mendenhall Museum, freeway close off Highway 101 in this tiny Santa Barbara County town?
Hardly. Years – nay, decades – of work and toil, of bargaining and barnstorming, have gone into Mendenhall’s eponymous Museum of Gasoline Pumps & Petroliana, which is a sentimental trip back for anyone who remembers when gas prices were under two bucks and customers were greeted by attendants who promised “service with a smile,” not automated pumps with temperamental credit-card slots.
When you set foot into this wonderland celebrating America’s love affair (addiction?) with burning fossil fuels, you will find yourself immersed in a man’s life work. That man is Mark’s dad, Jack, whose profession may have been as a gas station owner, back when ARCO was Richfield and had that proud blue and gold eagle logo, but whose passion in retirement was collecting every bit of gas-station memorabilia he could haul in his truck.
He hauled it all, from glowing globes above old-fashioned pumps of long-forgotten oil companies, to porcelain highway road signs, to neon logos once perched atop beloved roadside stops, to license plates from every state in the union (Canada and Mexico, too) to all manner of hot rods and land-speed vehicles that he and Mark raced for kicks and big trophies.
And it’s Mark’s job, now that Jack has passed on, to do right by the old man and build a shrine to all things automotive. That meant finding enough space on the site of the family’s erstwhile service station and auto yard to display nearly all of the mementos acquired over the years, as well as continuing the tradition by haunting “Gas Bashes” (sort of a gearhead version of swap meets), combing the latest issue of Petroleum Collectibles Monthly and even going on eBay to buy, sell and trade his way to compiling arguably one of the most comprehensive petroliana collections you’ll ever see.
“What I did,” Mark said, arms waving like a traffic cop, “is take our wrecking yard – see this photo, where all the cars are? – and I built all these outbuildings for the displays. We got all the walls covered, some of the ceilings, too, and we’ve got most of the collection out there for people to see. I still got some stuff in storage, but you know …”
Maybe he’ll have to make a few additions. But already he’s taken a building that once was a gas station and another that was a church, as well as that vast expanse that once housed junked cars, and turned it into a semi-circle of nearly a dozen rooms gleaming with polished gas pumps from as early as the 1920s, porcelain signs (“they don’t fade like these aluminum ones they got now”) hyping erstwhile petroleum companies like Seaside, Norwalk, Gilmore and Husky, and assorted other memorabilia.
No need to ask Mendenhall, 62, why he does it. He’s not one of those New Age-y guys who gets all teary-eyed and babbles on about feelings, but you can tell the museum is a labor of love devoted to his father, whose image graces many of the walls featuring petroliana and mementos from the family’s interest in land-speed racing.
One of Mark’s most prized possessions is not some vintage pump or restored sign; it’s a 10-foot old-fashioned town-square-type clock he made with his dad’s image on the face and the inscription, “Time for Jack.”
“They used to call my dad ‘Pack Rat Jack’ and ‘Cadillac Jack,’ and he drank a lot of Jack (Daniel’s whiskey),” Mark said. “So I thought the clock with ‘Time for Jack’ was fitting.”
He wasn’t kidding about the Jack Daniel’s consumption. Behind the bar in what Mark chummily calls the clubhouse, or “The Church of NASCAR,” are several rows of black-labeled Jack Daniel’s bottles, drained to the last drop.
“We had some good times drinking those,” he said, wistfully.
Mark doesn’t need much prompting to talk about the Old Man, whom he idolizes even though he’d never come out and say as much.
“In ’78, he sold the service station and went out on the road collecting, like he was like the first ‘American Picker,’ the original ‘American Picker,’ ” Mark said, referring to the History Channel show following extreme collectors. “By day, he was going around to businesses and selling them open-closed signs all the while getting leads on where to find petroliana. He had a double-decker trailer and be out three or four months and load that thing up with all these signs, pumps and globes and stuff and come back and unload it, then go back on the road again.
“You have to remember, back in ’78, stuff like this wasn’t worth much. If a guy had an old gasoline sign, when the brand changed, he’d just throw the old sign away. And a lot was changing back then. He was getting stuff for little or nothing. Now, only collectors have this stuff. You don’t find these things at a yard sale.”
Jack didn’t know it at the time, but he was leaving an inheritance for his only son worth far more than mere nostalgia. This bric-a-brac is worth tens of thousands now. Mark opened the cover of a petroliana trade magazine and pointed to a sign showing Mobil’s iconic flying red horse logo. It was selling for $4,000. Mark has a whole corral full of flying red horses. He’s also got rare pumps, including what he calls the first pay-at-the-pump – a bright red Beacon gas pump that had coin slots, silver dollar, half-dollar and quarters.
“Some of the signs you’re looking at (that) used to be $5,000 are $30,000 now,” he said, astonished by his good fortune. “A Harbor gas sign, porcelain, just sold for $60,000.”
With 10-foot high walls and signs out front showing two large dogs with the warning: “Can you make it to the fence in 3 seconds? We can,” and even with signs like that giant orange Union 76 ball clearly visible on the main street a block away, Mendenhall is not worried about theft.
“If they can get over the walls, past my dog, past my Smith and Wesson, go ahead and take what you can,” he said.
Mark doesn’t fit the mold of museum curator, but he and wife Vickie decided to open their private collection, by appointment only, during the recession of 2008, when his work as a contractor dried up. He found that he enjoyed telling the stories behind the items. He’s opened the place up for weddings, class reunions and, yeah, even funerals. His own father had his memorial service on the grounds of the old junkyard. Fitting, somehow.
“Everyone rode a street rod from here out to the cemetery,” he said. “It was nice.”
Jack Mendenhall may be buried a few miles away, but his legacy is clearly at this wrecking yard-turned-museum. As if to pay homage, Mark flipped a switch and that proud Richfield eagle beamed a brilliant blue and gold, looking as if at any moment it might take flight and ascend skyward.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis